Deciding What You Want
Before you and your trusted advisor start looking for a horse, make a short list of traits you would like in the horse you are planning to buy.
As a rule of thumb, beginners should stay away from horses under four or five years old. Between five and ten years old, many horses seem to mellow in temperament, although this is not always the case. An older horse usually means the horse has some training and experience going to shows. Ultimately, age does not determine a horse's safety. There is a saying that a horse will always eventually rise up or come down to the level of his rider/handler. This means that even the best-trained horse can be spoiled by an inadequate rider. Many twenty-year-old horses are happy to run away with an unskilled rider if they feel unsupported in scary situations, which can include something as basic as leaving the barnyard.
Find out what you can about where the horse comes from, how many owners the horse has had, and the circumstances of each sale. The horse's current seller may not know much or may not wish to share what she knows so as not to sour your outlook on the horse, but it's worth asking. Having too many owners can cause behavioral problems in horses due to inconsistent handling — or the horse may have changed hands often specifically because of behavioral problems.
One of the most important things for you to know about your prospective horse is its level of education. If possible, find out who trained the horse and how it was trained. Whips and gadgetry teach the horse to obey out of fear, while natural and classical techniques build trust, respect, and harmony between horse and rider. Riding the horse will give you clues about how the horse was trained and how he responds to the aids. If you aren't a skilled rider yourself, have someone with you who is evaluate the horse and try it out under saddle before you get on and ride it yourself.
Color should never be the sole reason for buying the horse unless you just want a lawn ornament. If you're going to ride the horse or compete with it, it is more important to buy a horse for what she knows and what she can do. Some people are attracted to Paint horses and collect them for their color alone. It does help to like the color of the horse you'll look at every day, but when you finally find the horse whose temperament and education fits you, you won't even notice how much white she has until you have to clean her.
The Thoroughbred Man O' War was born in 1917, a product of careful breeding. The chestnut colt was 16.2 hands as a three-year-old, and he lost only one race in his career. He won both the Preakness and the Belmont — which he won by six lengths — and regularly beat world and U.S. records.
Size doesn't have to matter, but it can. Most people with large builds like to have a horse of some substance under them. A tall person typically would like the horse to be tall, too, because they look better proportioned on a tall horse, which matters more in the show ring than anywhere else. A beginning rider who is short may gain more confidence starting out on a smaller horse. After all, it is a farther fall to the ground from a tall horse than a short one.
Buying a horse that is well put together and built for its intended use makes everything easier. When the horse's way of going is normal and even, it's not as prone to wear out shoes as quickly. It's also generally easier to fit a saddle to a horse with good conformation.
If you know what you plan to do with the horse — such as jumping, dressage, or barrel racing — look for conformation specifics that lend the horse to that activity. Someone experienced in your chosen discipline can help you in this regard. Any sound horse is suitable to do almost any basic riding activity for fun, but if you intend to compete seriously and move up in your levels of challenge, your equine athlete needs to have the appropriate physique and some innate ability in your chosen discipline. You may find that you need to change up horses as your own abilities progress. Few serious competitors stay with the same horse their entire riding career.
Price is of primary importance for most people. Chances are, you have a top limit of how much you can spend on a horse. Although there are some market standards, the seller will have his own reasons for setting a price, including how much he has invested in the horse's training.
Expect to spend up to $10,000 for your first pleasure-riding horse. If you're looking for a good show or performance horse, expect to pay a lot more. Lower-level dressage horses can start at $30,000 or more. That's because someone has invested a lot of time and expertise in the quality of training it takes to develop a good dressage horse. Don't let the numbers scare you, however. If your top price is, say, $5,000, there are horses out there for you, depending on what you want to do. It just may take a little longer to find exactly the right one.
Remember, if the horse is priced really cheap, there's probably a good reason, usually a soundness, behavior, or training problem. On the other side of the coin, just because you pay a lot of money for a horse doesn't guarantee that she's healthy or that you'll be able to ride her after you get her home.